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Have We Already Passed the Tipping Point?

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose)

All positive social changes of a sweeping nature seem to involve a tipping point. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights for blacks, and broad social acceptance of gays all appeared to be beyond the reach of Americans just a few generations ago. Those who spoke out and worked to overturn the entrenched, tradition-bound norms were often judged to be tilting at windmills, or trying to turn the tide with a spoon. And yet, in each case, a generation eventually came along which achieved the improbable, and the norms of all of these except slavery were overturned within the last 100 years - the last two, civil rights for blacks and broad acceptance of gays, both within my adult lifetime. There may be some lessons here regarding a tipping point for our country’s religious saturation, as I shall explain.

I went to a small city high school of about 1,200 students during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and didn’t know of a single gay student or teacher. They were there, of course, but no one was “out” in those days as known gays suffered terrible indignities and were fodder for jokes even amongst those of us who saw ourselves as good, kind people. In some states, homosexual acts were illegal, even in private.

Also, very shortly thereafter, when I was stationed in Key West in the Navy, I incurred the wrath of a friend when I went into a “colored” bathroom at a gas station. He was from Florida, while I am from Maine and had never before seen more than a couple dozen blacks in my whole life. I didn’t think it was beneath my dignity to go into the colored bathroom, so I did. But he explained that that wasn’t the point. He claimed that if any blacks saw me go into “their” bathroom, they might decide to do me some harm. I still question whether that was true, but I never did it again.

In each of those sweeping changes that occurred during the 20th century, it appears that there was a period of many years where there were a few voices in the wilderness, but little progress. But, once the tipping point was reached and change began, it picked up speed and turned into an avalanche that swept the vast majority of the population along with it. Who today has anything to say against women having the vote? Or who opposes equal rights for blacks? There is still some opposition to gay marriage, but clearly the tide has turned and in the near future it will seem strange that there was a time when gays were not allowed to marry other gays.

In recent years we have witnessed a rather rapid increase in the “nones,” those who check “none” when asked for their religious affiliation in surveys. Only some of these are atheists or agnostics (about 7% of the total population), but all are admitting that they are avoiding organized religion. The “nones” as a percentage of the U.S. adult population increased from 16% in 2007 to 25% in 2016. This is more than a 50% increase in just nine years. In starker terms, the number of “nones” in the U.S. increased from about 37 million to about 63 million over that period, an increase of roughly 26 million people. Am I crazy to suggest that maybe we have already reached the tipping point toward the majority abandonment of organized religion in this country?

As we might have expected, the young are in the vanguard of this sweeping change, as 39% of millennials (age 18 to 33) ticked the “none” box.
As James A. Haught pointed out on these pages recently ( ), religion was losing its power “even before the upsurge of ‘nones.’” Surely there are many reasons for the rise of the “nones” in recent years, but several of the more important ones can be considered backlashes against the religious establishment, including the clergy pedophile scandal, anti-abortion efforts, and anti-gay marriage efforts. The people have spoken loudly and clearly on these issues and condemned the religious establishment for their complicity.

Once the tipping point was reached and change began, it picked up speed and turned into an avalanche that swept the vast majority of the population along with it.In the long run, the election of Donald Trump may serve to hasten the day when the religious are in the minority. He courted evangelical and fundamentalist voters and appears ready to try to push their views into the nation’s laws. But, it could be that the tide has already turned, and the backlash against his efforts will only continue to swell the numbers and political and social influence of the “nones.”

It is true that religion has seen strong counter-insurgencies during the three “Great Awakenings” of the past 275 or so years, but this doesn’t mean another revival is certain. The Enlightenment has dramatically changed the social and scientific course of the world forever; there has never been an anti-Enlightenment movement that amounted to anything. Some sweeping social changes are forever, and the present rise of the “nones” could well signal the beginning of the end of one of the last and toughest battles of the Enlightenment, that against religious dogma.

Yes, Islam and Hinduism are growing in some parts of the world, so religion is going to be a problem area for the world for a long time to come. But, Religious affiliation has dried up to little more than a cult fringe in much of Europe, and the U.S. appears headed in the same direction. Of course it’s a little too soon to begin the celebrations, but if we non-believers continue to speak out, and to support secular efforts and organizations, we can help increase the momentum of this great, sweeping social change.

Psychological studies have shown that wherever the number of non-believers is seen as large and growing, they become more socially acceptable to the religious, thus amplifying their impact. So, if you can, please stand up and speak out for an end to religious influence in our time!